Tradition Today: Behind the fun and games

Perhaps it is the fact that at Purim the Jews did not rely on miracles but defended themselves that causes Adar to be the time for expressing joy.

kids 88 purim (photo credit: )
kids 88 purim
(photo credit: )
Pullquote: Perhaps it is the fact that at Purim the Jews did not rely on any miracle but defended themselves against their enemies that causes Adar, not Nisan, to be the time for expressing joy Every Israeli schoolchild knows the saying "mishenichnas adar marbim b'simha - "when Adar arrives we increase our rejoicing." Indeed the month of Adar, which began this week, is a month of costumes, carnivals, jokes and silliness all centered on the holiday of Purim. We have enough periods of sadness in the Jewish year, so that such a time of light frivolity is more than welcome. Yet I sometimes wonder why Adar is singled out for this? Isn't Nisan an even more important month - it is called "the first of the months of the year for you" (Exodus 12:2). Since it marks the time of our freedom, our emancipation, should Nisan not be the month in which rejoicing abounds? On a superficial level, the Book of Esther itself provides the reason for joy in Adar when it says, "For the Jews there was light and gladness, happiness and honor" (8:16), to which we add "Thus may it be for us" when we recite this verse at Havdala time. See also Esther 9:17 and 9:22, where the idea of rejoicing and merrymaking is emphasized. Many biblical scholars also believe that Purim originated in a Jewish adaptation of a Persian pagan carnival holiday, which would also account for many of its anomalies. (See, for example, the references in Adele Berlin's commentary to Esther published by the Jewish Publication Society, page xlvi.) The Book of Esther served to justify and explain the reason for the observance of Purim. Nevertheless, comparing the two months, Nisan certainly tops Adar. Purim celebrates the salvation of one specific Diaspora community of Jews, the Persian community, from the threat of annihilation, while Pessah in Nisan commemorates the release of the entire people of Israel from bondage to a pharaoh who planned to bring about their eventual annihilation. Furthermore in Egypt God Himself fought for the Israelites, bringing plague after plague upon Egypt and then causing the sea to drown the world's most powerful army, while in Persia salvation came from Jews who were able to defend themselves against enemies who planned their destruction. In the Purim story as related in the Book of Esther God is not even mentioned - not once - nor is there any usage of religious practices. No prayer is uttered. For a religious holiday, Purim is indeed strange. One might say that the book and the holiday are the most "secular" of all, depicting Jews who seem to pay no attention to Jewish law and practice and who decree the observance of a holiday - Purim - on their own authority, a holiday that has no "religious" content. Both the Greek version of the Book of Esther and rabbinic midrash add these missing religious elements in order to make the Book of Esther more appropriate as a biblical text. Of course in the prayer that the sages wrote for Purim, patterning it after the one for Hanukka, Al Hanissim, "For the miracles...," God is credited with having delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, etc., although the Book of Esther never says anything like that. Some commentators of a mystical bent have tried to read this into the book, contending, for example, that when the word hamelech - the king - is used in Esther 6:1 it secretly refers to the King, namely God, and that the book is an example of God in His hidden mode, working, as it were, behind the scenes rather than being revealed. Yet perhaps it is this very fact that at Purim the Jews did not rely on any miracle but defended themselves against their enemies that causes Adar and not Nisan to be the time for expressing joy. At Pessah when we are totally indebted to God for our salvation, since we did nothing to bring it about, we are happy but we are also serious in expressing our gratitude to God for what He has done for us. Judaism has always taught "one does not rely on miracles" - what happened in Egypt will not be repeated so easily and we should not expect it. Therefore when we are able to defend ourselves and save our people from destruction through our own actions (always remembering the fact that it is God who enables us to do so) - that is the most appropriate time to have fun and to enjoy ourselves. For all the fun and games, Purim has a serious message and one that Jews today should not ignore. It demonstrates that Jewish life anywhere can be perilous and that it does not take much to turn societies and governments against Jews. The existence of the Jewish people is, in and of itself, a matter of religious concern and one that very much depends upon our own vigilance and our willingness to stand up to our enemies. That is not a frivolous matter but one that demands serious attention wherever Jews live - Israel included. Behind the mask of fun and frivolity lies a more serious lesson for us all. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.